Vollard heirs sue Serbia over seized paintings

Works held at Belgrade National Museum are the subject of new restitution claim

More than 400 works by artists including Degas, Renoir, Matisse and Bonnard, once owned by one of the 20th century’s most high-profile dealers, are the subject of a lawsuit recently launched in Paris. Three French heirs have filed a complaint with the public prosecutor in Paris, seeking the restitution of 429 pieces from the collection of the late French dealer Ambroise Vollard—works they say are now housed at the National Museum in Belgrade.

François Honnorat, the lawyer for the plaintiffs, states that the court of appeal in Paris ruled in 2003 that Louis Sebastien, who died in 2007, is the sole heir of Ambroise Vollard. His three children—Paris-based Assunta and Estelle, along with Louise Sebastien of New Jersey in the US—are subsequently suing the Serbian government. The late Louis Sebastien was the nephew of the dealer Edouard Jonas, the executor of the Vollard estate.

Vollard, who played a key role in building the reputations of Van Gogh and Matisse, died in a car accident in July 1939. According to the complaint, Vollard’s brother, Lucien, gave 619 works to the dealer’s assistant, Erich Slomovic, who organised a show of works drawn from Vollard’s collection in Zagreb in late 1940. Slomovic then sought refuge in a Serbian village where he hid the works, but was arrested and died in a concentration camp in 1943.

Slomovic’s mother, who was in hiding with her son, escaped capture but was killed in December 1944 while transporting the collection on a train which came under attack. “Mara Herzler [Slomovic’s niece] then inherited the Vollard collection works. In this context, they were seized by the federal Socialist republic of Yugoslavia and deposited in the National Museum in the Serbian capital in 1949,” says the complaint. Representatives of the museum declined to comment.

The development is the latest twist in the legal battle over the Vollard collection. A sale of 190 works by artists including Picasso, Degas and Derain, deposited in a vault of the bank La Société Générale by Slomovic, was due to be held in 1981. However, the sale was cancelled following a claim on the works by the heirs of both Vollard and Slomovic.

More than 140 works from the same cache were auctioned at Sotheby’s London in 2010, fetching a total of £112.1m.

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'French heirs sue Serbia over seized paintings'

Appeared in The Art Newspaper Archive, 236 June 2012